50 killed in Florida nightclub shooting rampage, deadliest on US soil

It was the second shooting incident in Orlando in over 24 hours, coming shortly after singer Christina Grimmie was shot dead on Friday by a gunman who stormed a theatre where she had just finished a gig.

Patrons from the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, ran for the exits after a gunman opened fire inside the club on June 12, 2016. Univision Florida Central / EPA
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ORLANDO, FLORIDA // A gunman wielding an assault-type rifle and a handgun opened fire inside a packed nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday killing 50 people and injuring 53 others before dying in a gunfight with Swat officers. It was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

The suspect was identified as Omar Mateen, 29, an American citizen of Afghan descent, and the FBI was investigating whether he had radical Islamic “leanings” or may have had a terrorist motive. “This is clearly an act of terror,” Florida governor Rick Scott said, declaring a county-wide state of emergency.

US media, citing law enforcement sources, reported that Mateen called 911 before the shooting at the gay nightclub and swore allegiance to ISIL.

But the suspect’s father told NBC News that his son may have been motivated by homophobia, not by his Muslim faith.

“This had nothing to do with religion,” Mir Seddique said, recalling a recent incident in downtown Miami.

“He saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry,” the father said, apologising to the victims.

Relatives interviewed by US media say Mateen, who worked as a security officer, was not overly religious but had anti-gay views and had regularly assaulted his ex-wife.

Terrified survivors described how the gunman raked the club with bullets, prompting a police Swat team to storm the venue and shoot him dead.

Mayor Buddy Dyer said that the 50 people who were died were killed by the assault rifle.

“There are another 53 that are hospitalised,” he said. Officials said many of the victims were in critical condition, and the death toll could rise.

Witnesses described a chaotic scene when the gunfire began shortly before the Pulse club – which had more than 300 people inside – was to close.

“Some guy walked in and started shooting everybody. He had an automatic rifle, so nobody stood a chance,” said Jackie Smith, whose two friends next to her were shot. “I just tried to get out of there.” Ms Smith did not know the conditions of her friends and burst into tears when she came out of the hospital.

Relatives and friends of the victims, many in tears, gathered outside the hospital to learn the fate of loved ones.

Christine Leinonen drove to Orlando at 4am after learning of the shooting from a friend of her 32-year-old son, Christopher Leinonen, who was at Pulse and was missing.

She has not heard from her son and fears the worse.

“These are nonsensical killings of our children,” she said, sobbing. “They’re killing our babies!”

She said her son’s friend Brandon Wolf survived by hiding in a bathroom and running out as the bullets flew.

A woman who was outside the club early Sunday was trying to contact her son, Eddie, 30, who texted her when the shooting happened and asked her to call police. He told her he ran into a bathroom with other club patrons to hide. He then texted her: “He’s coming.”

“The next text said: ‘He has us, and he’s in here with us’,” Mina Justice said. “That was the last conversation.”

The suspect exchanged gunfire with a police officer working at the club. The gunman then went back inside and took hostages, police chief John Mina said.

At about 5am local time, authorities sent in a Swat team to rescue the hostages.

Authorities were looking into whether the attack was an act of domestic or international terror, and if the shooter acted alone, according to Danny Banks, an agent with the Florida department of law enforcement.

FBI official Ronald Hopper said officials were confident there was no immediate further threat to the area, or to the United States.

Omar Mateen was born to Afghan parents in 1986 and lives in Port St Lucie, Florida, about two hours drive from Orlando.

CBS News reported that Mateen had no apparent criminal history but Fox News said that the FBI had opened a file on Mateen as recently as 2013.

Congressman Michael McCaul, chairman of the House homeland security committee, dubbed the murders “the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11”.

The latest mass shooting comes at the height of what is already a heated US presidential election campaign, and the main candidates were quick to react.

Democratic flag-bearer Hillary Clinton tweeted that the attack was “devastating” news and that her “thoughts are with those affected by this horrific act”.

Her Republican rival Donald Trump, who has called for Muslims to be banned from travelling to the United States, tweeted: “When will this stop?”

“When will we get tough, smart and vigilant?” he demanded.

* Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters